Forty-seven Democrats joined all but two Republicans in the House on Thursday to pass a bill requiring new screening procedures for refugees from Iraq and Syria before they are relocated to the United States.
The final vote was 289-137 — just one shy of the number needed to override a veto from President Obama, as he has vowed to do when the legislation reaches him. But six Democrats and two Republicans missed the vote, which means his veto could be overridden by the House — if Democrats deem Obama a lame duck not worthy of supporting on the contentious issue.
“While today’s bill is not as strong as I wanted it to be, it does place new restrictions on the President by requiring the FBI Director, DHS Secretary and DNI Director to personally sign off on each refugee to ensure he or she is not a threat to our national security,” said Rep. Brian Babin,a Texas Republican who had unsuccessfully pushed for a 180-day moratorium on refugee resettlement.
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“This is certainly better than current law and will compel these agencies to conduct a more thorough background check. If they cannot conduct such an investigation, they won’t be coming in.”
The Democrats who supported the bill ranged from the Blue Dogs, a centrist group that often backs Obama, to members who face tough re-election campaigns in 2016. The bill now moves to the Senate, where Democratic Leader Harry Reid has pledged to block any consideration.
“I don’t think we’ll be dealing with it over here,” Reid said.
The House Republican leadership on Wednesday had balked at scrapping Obama’s plans to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, opting instead for a measure that would require administration appointees to certify that the refugees pose no threat.
The legislation angered conservatives and others who want Congress to defund Obama’s plans.
But less than a week after 129 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Paris, the issue took on more weight, despite vitriolic rhetoric by Obama that Republicans were afraid of “orphans and widows” coming into the country.
A bill moved swiftly through the House and few wanted to argue that letting refugees in was still the best course of action. “If our law enforcement and our intelligence community cannot verify that each and every person is not a security threat, then they shouldn’t be allowed in,” said Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“We cannot and we should not wait to act. Not when our national security is at stake,” he said.
Under the leadership-backed bill, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015, the FBI director would be required to certify the background investigation of each refugee from Iraq and Syria. It requires him, along with the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence, to certify to Congress that each refugee is not a security threat.
The legislation also would require the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s Office to independently assess the refugee approvals.
GOP leaders warned that the federal government is unable to determine the status of many refugees.
“We cannot vet the refugees from Syria,” said former Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y. “There are no databases to work against. There are no government records.”
Congress has faced new urgency since last week’s Paris terrorist attacks to confront Obama’s plan to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Public opinion has swung against the plan — 53 percent said in a Bloomberg poll released Wednesday they oppose taking any Syrian refugees.